So that work project that I thought would take a couple of days was a little more complex than I anticipated! What it has meant is that I’ve had a week (between deadlines) to think about this very important lesson on inner child work.
I have been forced to get to know my inner little girl, as she has been fiercely behind some of my more ridiculous decisions in recent years. When you were raised in a religious commune without your parents until the age of 10, in a big old rambly building in the countryside, it would make sense that the building holds some unfinished business for you and your broken childhood. So at the age of 38, even when you KNOW how hard it will be, when those who love you warn you against it, when it makes zero financial or career sense, you decide to give up a job you love to take on the running of that old building as a business, it is just possible that you are being driven by something other than the rational intelligence of a fully grown adult.
I don’t regret running Cleeve House for three years – I learned a huge amount about business, myself, my skills, my weaknesses and my breaking points, as well as creating and attending some spectacular events with some splendid people. But I didn’t realise, until it manifested in every possible way, the extent to which your childhood trauma could recreate itself and demand to be addressed, via the means of customers, landlords, clients and colleagues. The dramas and dilemmas of my Cleeve adventure ended exactly a year ago, and are the subject of a whole book’s worth of lessons on how not to run a business, but the most compelling thing I learned was the central lesson of working out WHO is driving your most insane decisions before you get engulfed by them, and separating out what might be the passionate pursuits of an illogical angry child.
Looking back, I can clearly see how a 5 year old growing up scared, confused and hurt would use her little girl logic to decide that one day she would take control and fix everything that she hated about her helpless life. And all that hurt and anger, with nowhere to go, no-one to express it to, would just get stuck inside her head, her heart and (as I discovered particularly for me) her neck. So that when events in that same house – with a customer, a colleague, or a representative of the church – triggered fear and hurt to my 38 year old self, what emerged was the irrational terrified response of a tiny helpless little girl. What was really clever though, in this business setting, was that I absolutely could not walk away. The legal and financial commitments I had tangled myself up in meant that I had to find professional grown up solutions to the conflicts and stresses, and face them head on until they were mastered. The biggest and simplest thing I finally managed to do while running the house was to say no. I said no to my landlord for unreasonable rent, to charity events for unacceptable requests, to customers who were about to break the law in my venue, and massively, life-changingly, I finally said no to the church who I had allowed to exploit, frighten and control me for more than half my life. So while I don’t recommend being persuaded to do insane things by the irrational force of your inner 5 year old, if you do follow her bidding and set yourself up in situations that repeat the same cycle of abuse/neglect/abandonment you may be in a position, while re-experiencing that trauma, to overcome and fix it. Perhaps.
Anyway, all that was meant by way of introduction to show that sometimes our inner child is in the driving seat, disguised as a professional business woman, who can manage a complex wedding for 150 guests one day, and be a crumpled mess of tears the next.
Which leads us nicely to this month, this challenge, this lesson in gaining mastery over my inner child in order to overcome these frequent bouts of anxiety. It seems that my Cleeve adventures dealt with and attained closure on a few aspects of my childhood – mostly around anger and hurt – but it was a few months after leaving that house that this next level of fear set in. So I know there’s more work to do.
One type of inner child work is to write to your little self. Mr Bradshaw wrote an interesting (but annoyingly religious) book outlining the things to write to your younger self to heal specific wounds held at different ages of your life. The concept is to approach your inner child from your adult self and offer unconditional love to this lost and frightened version of yourself. I have found this useful when I’m angry or crying, and I write questions to the little girl – ‘why are you sad? What happened’ etc – and then take a deep breath, pass the pen to my left hand, and let it write whatever the feeling is. Pretty much every time, for every situation, the little girl’s scrawly writing takes up a few pages before concluding in a variety of ‘Don’t leeeeeeeeeave meeeeee.’ I know that all I need to do is let her express her sadness, hurt or anger – sometimes ripping through the pages with her furious scrawl – and that after she’s said everything she always feels better and curls up to sleep. Her recurring issue is abandonment, so I know I’m susceptible to that as an adult, and therefore don’t blame whatever person or situation triggers that emotion, because I am familiar with its weepy origins and I am pretty good at getting the book out to ‘listen’ to her cry about it until it goes away, she falls asleep and I can return to being a professional adult dealing with other adults again.
Anxiety is another thing though. I haven’t managed to get any sense out of her when she’s afraid. At its most intense, it is wordless sheer terror, and it may be from much younger in my life before I could understand or express it with language, because it is stored completely in my body, where it manifests as hot and cold rushes of dread and a stomach churning sickness. (But not for three weeks now, hallelujah!).
Having listened to loads of talks online about techniques for inner child work, I thought I was getting good at separating out the two selves – the compassionate loving adult taking care of the scared and hurt little child. Bradshaw says I need to tell the child I’m here for her, I love her and I won’t leave her. But she often scribbles back in her left hand, ‘No you don’t. You just pretend to love me so you can feel better.’ She has a point, because that’s exactly what I’m doing. So the love-bombing doesn’t always work.
Then I found a brilliant talk by Alan Robarge, in which he says don’t bulldoze the child with an alternate reality. Acknowledge her feelings. Don’t tell her she can feel safe now because you’re here. Let her tell you what she is feeling, and just acknowledge it. He also says that sometimes your inner child simply won’t trust you, won’t speak to you, will fold their arms and turn away from you. And that’s OK. That’s them being a child. You can’t force a positive outcome. Just be patient and keep asking, ‘what do you need from me?’ Then sit still with that question and see what comes up. It might be an image of flying a kite, so then you visualise yourself as an adult taking your little you to fly a kite. And you watch their face to see how they’re feeling and then if they are open and relaxed, you can try again to talk to them.
The next lovely little snippet was from Stacey Hoch who says the thing you need to do is get on the ground with the inner kid. You don’t need to save them or change them or take them out of the situation. You just go in and experience it with them, be right there with them and let it be OK. She says, ‘Your inner child doesn’t want you to save it, it wants you to be with it… be with it in the spaces that it wasn’t allowed to be.’
That was new for me. It’s a level of acceptance and love for the irrational childish place of fear that I thought I had to resist or change or fix. Actually it just requires acceptance. It’s like when I was at my sister’s house in early March this year. Corona was coming and with it my panic attacks. My sister was asking me what exactly I was scared of. She was rationally explaining away my fears and listing all the coping strategies and safety nets available to me, and then she looked up, saw my frowny tense face and said, ‘Actually, I can see this isn’t helping. You’re just scared. And that’s OK. Would you rather not talk about it?’ I nodded. She said, ‘What do you need?’
‘A blanket,’ I said weakly, ‘And a cup of tea.’
‘Right,’ she said, springing into action. ‘Here’s my cosiest warmest blanket, and some cushions, and I’ll get you a cup of tea. You just curl up there and be warm.’
She has children, so she knows, when they are scared or sad, they don’t need rationale about why they shouldn’t feel like that, they need to know that what they’re feeling is OK. They need their feelings to be heard and allowed. They need permission to feel afraid or angry and know they are still loved. My sister is good at providing that for her children, and fortunately also me when I’m acting like a child. I need to be able to provide it for myself.
So earlier this week, when the dusky gloom of 5pm darkness started to set in, and the smallest little hints of fear began their crawl down my spine, I stopped typing my report, looked out the window at the gathering dark, and imagined my scared little 5 year old was looking out the window with me.
I could see her tensing up, furrowing her little face in fear as the cold wind whipped leaves through the air and dark grey clouds filled the gloomy sky.
‘You don’t like it when it gets dark, do you love?’
‘No I really don’t like it.’
‘It might get pitch black and then I won’t be able to see anything and that’s really scary.’
At this point, I would have previously tried to find a solution immediately. I would have turned all my cosy lights on – including fairy lights, thank you Mr M – and told this little girl not to be scared because I was there to protect her and there is no actual reason to be afraid of the dark. Instead, I remembered the advice I’d just learned.
‘That is a scary thought,’ I agreed.
She nodded, frowning at the dark sky.
‘It’s OK to be scared, love. I can see that this is scary for you and I’ll sit with you and hold your hand while you’re scared.’
‘But Uncle T will get cross if I’m scared.’
This is where the real fear was. Not fear of the dark as much as being told off for having a fear of the dark. I remembered a cold autumn evening when we were kids at Cleeve, and there was a power cut while we were having dinner. The room went pitch black, the boys started laughing and making scary noises and I screamed at them to stop it because I was terrified of the dark. I got in trouble for screaming, which was extra hurtful and confusing because I needed Uncle T to protect me, not scold me right then. Is it possible that at that small moment, 35 years ago, a specific little fear got stuck in my shoulders and just keeps returning? Because it was never allowed?
I don’t know. But I do know that after the very simple exercise of allowing my 5 year old voice to tell me how frightened she was, that particular moment of fear dissolved. I smiled at the darkening sky and got back to the report I was writing.
As with all of these lessons, there is so much more to learn and explore. But instead of telling her to feel better, this new approach of listening to and accepting the fears of my scared little girl, instead of scolding it away, feels very different. Much stronger. Better.
And the other thing my 5 year old absolutely loves is being outdoors, so I will go and do some more of that now then. 🙂